Cash-strapped dairy farmers are slaughtering thousands more cattle than usual in response to slumping milk prices.
The national cow kill is up by more than 160,000 head on a year ago. Meat Board statistics for the processing year to July 25 showed the number of cows being processed in export-licenced plants was up 19 per cent on last year.
In the North Island the week of July 25 the kill was 55 per cent higher than a year ago. In the South Island, the increase was 81 per cent.
Economic Service director Rob Davison said farmers usually started culling dairy cattle in April and May as the milking season ended. This year it had started in February, as farmers facing drought and falling payout shed their worst-performing animals.
Dairy farmers are weighing the cost of feeding and breeding a cow for a poor payout against the gain of selling an animal to the meat works. The sale value of some of these cows has fallen in line with the payout drop, at a time when beef is paying at meat processing plants.
Davison said dairy farmers would be reluctant to cull their herds aggressively because milk was the essence of their business. Cows going to the works would be the least productive animals, he said.
He said fewer South Island dairy cows would have been going to the works over winter because plants were usually closed for seasonal maintenance over that time.
Last week the aspiring meat company director Gray Baldwin tweeted his observations of the dairy farming environment on a tour of Southland. Next to a picture of a stock truck full of cattle he wrote:
“This truckie will take 450 dairy cows to meat works this week. Farmer going bust. Incredible #strongbeefweakdairy
Gray, a candidate for a directorship with Alliance Group, told Fairfax Media he posted the tweet after talking to a truckie at the Croydon Hotel in Gore. “His client in Oamaru has three farms, has rounded up all the tail end cows from three herds, some were close to calving. Truckie has 10 loads of 45 cows over next few days taking them all to Alliance Mataura beef plant. Couldn’t believe it after all the wintering effort. But with beef prices so strong he could potentially cover his deficit till Christmas.”
Alliance Group livestock general manager Murray Behrent said its cow kill was “definitely up, there’s no doubt about that”.
Cows had come back to farms after winter grazing and owners were deciding to kill them rather than graze them, he said.
In the past week Alliance had killed 2000 cows compared to 700 this time a year ago.
The co-op had extended its processing at the Mataura plant by two weeks so that it could process the extra kill. Behrent expected an above average cull this spring as farmers opted to sell late-mating or lesser quality animals rather than keep them through summer. It meant a spike in cull cows now rather than the usual March/April window.
New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA) executive member Bernice Magnall said farmers were scouring their 2014/14 mating records to find late-mating cows which would not deliver calves until October. Some farmers might even consider culling mid-September calvers if they could book the transport, she said.
Magnall expected cattle owners would check their livestock carefully before they went to slaughter, not least because of “mortal gear” of livestock inspectors at meat works.
“You don’t send in anything that might be looking pear-shaped…because they will come down on you with a ton of bricks.” Inspections included body condition score and lameness, Magnall said.
NZVA head of veterinary services, Callum Irvine, said most farmers would be well aware of welfare codes for animals being transported in the final trimester of pregnancy. The risks for cows in calf included a higher risk of metabolic diseases and stress-induced illness and injury. Loading pregnant cattle on to trucks always needed careful thought, Irvine said. But trimester clause was a ‘should’ rather than a must, he said.
In practice, sending a pregnant cow to slaughter was a decision for the owner, the transport firm and ideally a vet. No vet had a magic wand to predict exactly how close a cow was to calving, he said.
The Ministry for Primary Industries said it had received complaints about the condition of pregant cattle going to meat works, but had not found any breaches of animal welfare law. Under the Transport Code of Welfare, animals must not be transported if they are likely to give birth during the journey or be affected by metabolic complications of late pregnancy as a result of the journey.
The stock owner and livestock transport operator were both responsible for ensuring animals are fit for transport, as per the code.
The ministry investigated where there was evidence of an offence under that law and it would prosecute if appropriate. A transport operator was convicted on Animal Welfare Act charges and fined $7500 earlier this year for injuries to stock during transport, MPI said.
The company had animal welfare officers on site and qualified independent veterinarians employed by MPI “to assess both the condition of animals before slaughter and the treatment and handling of stock in yards to ensure that we meet the required standards.
“We take our animal welfare responsibilities very seriously and any issues are dealt with by our staff and MPI to ensure that all decisions are made in the best interests of the animal.”